JOY Full Horses: Pt. 1: Ch 2 Animal Emotions – Affective Neuroscience

Joy Full Horses title page cover

If you are new to this series, this article is part of a book which I am publishing here on this site.  I suggest you begin with the first article published on January 2, 2016


Part 1: Chapter 2: Animal Emotions continued

In the previous section I introduced you to Virginia Morrel’s book “Animal Wise”.  In her book Morrell shares the work of scientists from all over the world who are doing pioneering work in the field of animal cognition.  That includes the neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp.

ratAffective Neuroscience
Virginia Morrell gives a wonderful summary of Panksepp’s work in a chapter entitled “The Laughter of Rats”.  It’s a great primer to prepare you for Panksepp’s own books on Affective Neuroscience.  For those of you for whom this is a new term, Morrell supplies us with a simple definition: that’s the zone where neurons, emotions and cognition meet.  The question here is how does the brain generate emotional feelings and what impact (affect) do these feelings have on behavior?

Panksepp sees emotions as evolutionary skills that help animals survive and reproduce.  Evolution is a conservative process meaning structures tend to be preserved and reused rather than discarded.  We can use mice and rats in medical studies because their biochemistry is so similar to our own.  So why should we think the nervous system is any different when it comes to recycling existing structures?

Panksepp titled his second book “The Archaeology of the Mind”.  It’s a great title.  Just as an archaeologist can study past cultures by digging down through layers of sediment, the neuroscientist can study the evolution of cognition by going down through the layers of the brain.  We share the same ancient structures with all other species of mammals.  We are not separate from other animals.  We share a common heritage, and Panksepp now has evidence to support the idea that that means we also share common emotional experiences.

By electrically stimulating the brains of rats and guinea pigs Panksepp has identified seven emotional systems found in the mammalian subcortex.  These seven systems serve similar functions in the animals he has studied.  When he talks about these systems he writes them in capital letters to differentiate them from our vernacular use of these terms.  I will follow this practice here.

The Seven Affective Emotional Systems
The SEEKER System is the most primitive and extensive of the seven systems. The SEEKER circuit is activated when a healthy animal explores it’s environment.  It needs to know where it’s resources are, where to look for food and water, shelter and mates.  When people talk about the SEEKER circuit, they often use someone’s love of shopping as a modern example of this system in action.

Karen Pryor has speculated that the SEEKER system is activated by clicker training.  That’s why we see such enthusiasm and eagerness to engage in the training.  It isn’t so much about the food that comes after the click, as it is the hunt for the right solution.

It’s easy to see how the SEEKER system applies to dogs and other predators.  They have to hunt for their prey, so it’s no wonder dogs love clicker training.  But horses?  They live on a carpet of grass.  How does this relate to them?

Even horses need a strong SEEKER System.  They may live on a carpet of grass, but they still need to find the bits that haven’t been recently grazed.  They need to know where the water holes are, especially in a dry climate.  They need to know where to find shelter in a storm, and what the best routes are out of a canyon should they be chased by predators.

I came to appreciate the SEEKER system in a rather odd way.  I don’t know about you, but I am a mouse rescuer.  When one of my cats comes parading past me with a mouse or baby rabbit dangling out of her mouth, another of Panksepp’s primary systems sends me into action.  The nurturing CARE system makes it impossible for me to see an animal in distress without wanting to do something about it.  Yes, I know mice are considered pests and all that, but mice also have emotional lives.  They are amazing creatures.

A Courageous Mouse

aa composter

I’m going to digress for a moment.  At the new barn we use an O2 composting system for the manure.  Instead of creating a  large manure pile somewhere – hopefully out of sight – and leaving it over a period of a year or more to rot down, manure goes into a cement bay.  When the bay is filled, a pump forces air through the pile.   You can see how this is done by looking at the photo.  The empty bay in the middle shows two rows of wooden slats. These cover a trough in the floor.  Air is pumped into this trough and up into the pile through holes drilled in the slats.   This not only speeds up the composting process, the intense heat from the rotting manure kills weed seeds, insects and parasites.  In three months it can produce a high quality compost that can go directly back onto the fields as fertilizer or into the garden.  And because the manure is contained throughout the process in the cement bays, there’s no unsightly muck heap in the barn yard.

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Some of the flowers produced by the compost

We don’t have a tractor so when a bay is ready to be emptied, I do that by hand – wheel barrow by wheel barrow.  It’s a time consuming process but well worth the effort.  As I shovel in yet another wheel barrow full of compost, I think of the flowers that will be growing out of it later.

One cool fall day I was emptying the composter, digging in with my pitch fork when I disturbed a mother mouse and her nest filled with babies.  She scurried out from under my pitch fork with seven almost-grown babies clinging to her belly.   She ran up what was for her a mountain of manure to the top of the composter.

There she was confronted with a sheer cliff many times higher aa composter pilethan herself.  One of her babies had lost it’s grip.  She paused just long enough to give it time to reattach itself to her belly, and then she scaled the cement wall, ran across the wooden planks of the walkway at the back of the composter, and disappeared into the safety of the mouse tunnels she must have known she would find on the other side.

I was in awe.  What courage. Am I projecting human emotions onto a mouse?  Maybe. But I will still call it heroic what she did, especially pausing long enough to carry all of her babies to safety.  She could so easily have left that one behind to save the others.  She could have kept herself safe and simply abandoned them all.  We have much to learn from the dedication of that little mouse to all of her offspring.

The Cat Dilemma
So when one of my cats come meowing proudly through the house showing off some little mouse that she has brought back for me, I turn into a rescuer. But I am always in a quandary.  I hate the way a cat will play with a mouse before she kills it.  I want to rescue the mouse and set it free.  But am I really doing it a favor?  Who knows how far the cat has come.  When I release the mouse, will it be able to find it’s way back to the safety of its nest, or am I condemning it to a slow death by starvation?

I always do rescue the mouse, but for years I worried if this was really the best thing to do.  And then at one of my clinics I got the answer.  During our Friday evening introductions, one of the participants said he was a field biologist.  He looked the part.  I could easily see him tromping through the woods of northern Minnesota, radio tracking equipment on his back, following a pack of wolves.  I’m sure you can conjure up your own picture based on all the nature programs you’ve watched on TV.  I asked him what species he studied.  His answer: mice.

“Oh,” piped up another attendee, “Are you an exterminator?”

Hardly.  It turns out he loves mice.  He was studying an endangered species that lives in the coastal sand dunes of North Carolina.  Here was the perfect person to ask about my dilemma.  Was I doing the mice I rescued any favor.  I was very much delighted to hear that, yes absolutely, the mice would know how to orient back to their nests and stored food supplies.

It turns out mice can travel huge distances over the course of a single night.  They are updating the map of their territories.  They need to know where their resources are.  Where is the grass that is about to seed, the berries that are about to ripen?  Hearing this gave me a much deeper understanding of the SEEKER system and the primary role it plays in an animal’s life.

To be continued . . .

In the next installment I’ll continue to explore the Seven Affective Emotional Systems identified by Jaak Panksepp.  Next up is RAGE.

Words Matter

What Are You Really Saying?
We’ve been having an interesting discussion in my on-line course about the labels people use to describe their horses.
airplane seats multiple rows
Words are so interesting.  Recently I flew on a Delta airlines plane.  Most of the airlines have rows at the front of the economy section that give you a couple more inches of leg room.  United calls this section economy plus.  Delta calls it comfort seating.

Oh dear.

As I walked past the last row of this section to my seat in the middle of the plane, I couldn’t help thinking: “abandon hope all ye who enter here.”  If I have just passed the comfort seating zone, what was left – the comfortless seating rows.  Exactly right!

cramped airline seat

Words Matter
Words matter.  Labels matter.  We use language so we are constantly creating labels and attaching them to everything.  We name our family members, our friends, our pets, the objects around us, the thoughts and emotions we’re feeling.

When we talk about our horses, we often find ourselves saying they are dominant, stubborn, aggressive, playful, friendly, submissive.  We stick these labels on the animal, and they become self-fulfilling prophecies. The power of expectations is huge.  Dr. Robert Rosenthal demonstrated this in a clever study done with rats.  Twelve lab techs were each given five rats.  Their job was to train their rats to run through a maze.  Six of the lab techs were told their rats came from a strain that was bred for good performance.  The other six lab techs were told their rats came from a strain that had been bred for poor performance.

rat 2They were given five days to work with their rats, and from day one on there was a significant difference in how the rats performed.  The “smart” rats learned the maze much faster.  Of course, you’ve already guessed the set up.  The rats were all from the same strain.  There should have been no significant difference in performance, but the expectation of the handlers impacted how they handled the rats.  The “smart” rats were handled more gently which resulted in them performing almost twice as well as the “stupid” rats.  The expectations of the experimenters had created a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Rosenthal went on to conduct similar tests of expectations in schools.  In one study all the students in a class were given an IQ test at the beginning of the school year.  The teachers were then told that five of the students had scored exceptionally well on the test and could be expected to excel throughout the year.  At the end of the year, these five students had indeed surpassed all the other students in the class.  And again, you’ve probably guessed the set up of the experiment.  The five children were picked at random.  Their scores were no higher than the rest of their classmates at the start of the school year, but the extra attention the teachers gave them again created a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Rosenthal dubbed the influence that expectation can have on results as the “Pygmalion Effect”.  His work clearly shows us that labels and the expectations they create do indeed matter.

What Are You Attaching The Label To?
Dr. Susan Friedman and other behaviorists remind us that the emotionally charged labels we use don’t describe the whole animal, they describe the behavior we’re seeing.  That shift in focus is important.  If I think of a horse as aggressive, we can both become trapped in this label just as surely as a fly is trapped in amber.

Labels can become dead ends.  An aggressive horse becomes just that.  Even if I modify his behavior, that label remains attached like a permanent brand tattooed around his neck.  He might not be showing aggression now, but watch out, that label warns.  This is an aggressive horse.

When you unlock the horse from these labels and describe instead the behavior you are observing along with its antecedents and its reinforcers, you also unlock training solutions that create the potential for lasting change.

Labels can certainly be a convenient short hand.  We all use them, but we need to be mindful when we do of the effect that these labels have on the ways in which we interact with our horses and the training choices that we make.  We need to keep in mind the Pygmalion effect, but that doesn’t mean we mustn’t use labels.  After all, labels – meaning nouns and the adjectives that modify them – are what give meaning and richness to our language.  Without them we would be creating a very drab world indeed.  (Note all the labels that were used just in the last two sentences.  They help give colour to the world we live in.)

So instead of stripping our language down to the bare bones because we are afraid to use any descriptive labels at all, let’s learn instead how to put the Pygmalion effect to work for us.  If our expectations contribute to the outcome we get, then let’s use labels that take us in the direction we want to go.

listen to labels beigeWhen you attach labels, think about what you want to modify.  Are you describing the whole horse or just the behavior you are seeing in this moment?  If you do label the horse, select ones that take you to the horse you want to have.  I believe that horses are intelligent animals, and I love being around smart horses.  The labels that I attach to the horses I’m with reflect this belief system and direction I want to be heading with them.  Listen to the labels that people  use to describe their horses.  They will reveal their underlying belief systems.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
We attract evidence to support our belief systems.  If I believe that horses are intelligent animals, I will be most aware of experiences that support that view.  Someone else might think of horses as stupid animals.  Guess what they will notice?

We can see the same behavior, and our underlying belief system will cause us to see it in completely different ways.  We’ll each end up attaching labels that support our belief system.  So when you use someone else’s labels, you want to consider their underlying belief system.  Is it a match with where you want to be heading with your horse?

If you try on someone else’s label, examine carefully what expectations that creates for you.  When I say my horse is “smart”, there’s delight and admiration attached to that label.  You might use that label and find that it creates problems.  What happens if your “smart” horse doesn’t understand a lesson?  Do you get frustrated with him because he’s not trying hard enoughHe should be able to get this.  If a label leads you down a relationship path that creates disappointment or conflict, don’t use that label.

Labels are often based on an incomplete analysis of the behavior we’re seeing.  We hear so often horses are prey animals, and they are flight reaction animals.  Lets take those descriptions a step further than these statements usually carry us.  Horses are herd animals. They form social groups to provide safety from predators.  When a predator attacks what do horses do?  Run, of course.  But not apart.  They don’t scatter in all directions.  They bunch together.  Why? Because that tighter bunch makes it harder for a predator to get in close to take one of them down.

So when a horse is startled and crowds in on top of you, is he being pushy, or is he trying to keep you both safe?  When you drive him out of your space because you’ve been taught that this behavior is a sign of disrespect, what must he be thinking?  That you’re literally throwing him to the lions.zebras lion

For obvious reasons we can’t have our horses jumping on top of us, but if I see this reaction as a desire for safety, I’ll find training solutions that support this need.  Our underlying belief systems and our understanding of horses will very much influence how we see this event.  It will impact what labels we attach to the horse and what training solutions we choose.

Through clicker training we are learning to look beyond the easy out of incomplete or outdated labels to the behavior we are seeing. Horses do indeed have very definite personalities.  One of the great pleasures of clicker training is the horse’s personality can be expressed and remain intact.  That makes it very much a study of one – your horse with his unique personality and life history.  When you describe him, use words that lead you to towards the kind of relationship you want to have.

I believe horses are intelligent and my expectations create that reality in my horses.

Alexandra Kurland

Please note: If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:          

P.S. If you want to learn more about expectations, listen to the January 22, 2015 podcast of NPR’s Invisibilia: How to Become Batman.  You’ll hear Robert Rosenthal describe the study he did with the rats, and you’ll also hear from Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck.  I’ve referenced her work in previous articles.